Review: Writers’ correspondence covers wide terrain
HERE AND NOW: Letters 2008-2011. By Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee. Viking. 248 pages. $27.95.
Long ago (1990), J.M. Coet-zee’s fellow South African writer, Rian Malan, wrote an interview with his countryman that included these sentences describing a private man: “Coetzee is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke, or eat meat. ... A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”
Now, all these years and several volumes of memoirs later, Coetzee seems more comfortable in the public domain. He might even crack a smile now and then. The correspondence collected in “Here and Now” starts when he and American novelist Paul Auster, a new friend, agree to “strike sparks” off one another. Their letters are polished, careful products, initially more comfortable on public topics than private.
Auster and Coetzee have plenty to say about sports, writers, reviewers, politics, the stages of aging. One of the pleasures of “Here and Now” is watching a friendship evolve on paper.
From the start, Coetzee and Auster are irreducibly themselves. In his first letter, Coetzee theorizes that friendship has been written about less than love. Then, as precise as we know him to be and finicky about the exact truth, he heads off to the library to check out his hunch. He returns with some backup intel from Plato.
Auster, a more freewheeling anecdotal correspondent, fills his letters with odd coincidences and anxiety-producing encounters, much like his novels. His search for meaning in randomness often is funny. See, for instance, a series of coincidental encounters with Charlton Heston.
Whatever their other topics, armchair sports enthusiasts Coetzee and Auster keep circling back to games. Coetzee thinks watching is a waste of time, but then reconsiders when he recalls Roger Federer’s cross-court backhand volley: “I have just seen something that is at the same time both human and more than human; I have just seen something like the human ideal made visible.” Later, they both agree that, at least for them, sports is mainly a forum for losing. Still, Auster focuses on the pleasures of competition, while Coetzee likens it to “a state of possession,” more warfare than manly pleasure.
“Here and Now” gets its charge from this kind of friction. Auster and Coetzee clearly like each other (so much so that Auster admits Coetzee has become an “absent other” for him — a voice he talks to in his head — and Coetzee expresses a “fraternal tenderness” for Auster’s “dogged, unappreciated bravery”). But they sometimes have to stretch for patches of common ground. Homelessness, foreignness, obstacles: Their obsessions are the same, but where Auster shrugs, Coetzee interrogates.
The volume, slight but irresis-tible, ends with a little benediction from Coetzee: “The world keeps throwing up its surprises. We keep learning.” Here’s hoping we’ll hear more from these two.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.